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Conference USA Preseason Position Reviews: Defensive Back

A few anticipated conference title contenders pull up the rear as we rank defensive back talent in Conference USA.

NCAA Football: North Texas at Army Danny Wild-USA TODAY Sports

We continue our Conference USA preseason position reviews by looking at the defensive backs in C-USA. The grading categories: “Great Shape,” “Good Shape,” and “We’ll See.”

To elaborate on the grades, "We'll See" means exactly what it means. We don’t know if that position is going to turn out to be a positive due to a lack of proven contributors and questionable depth. At this time, there’s no way to know.

“Good Shape” means known commodities are at the position but there’s still room for improvement. Depth is probably decent at the position but an injury could be catastrophic.

“Great Shape” means all-conference performers are at this position or there is good-to-great depth. You definitely want your team to be here.

In a pass-happy league like C-USA it is of great importance for your secondary to not have any leaks. A good corner and an inexperienced safety could mean you’ll still get get torched. Based on that premise, we decided to combine the safety and cornerback positions together.

Great Shape

1. North Texas: The Mean Green certainly has the most talented secondary as two cornerbacks and one safety landed on Athlon’s preseason all conference list for 2017. Cornerbacks Nate Brooks and Eric Jenkins will provide the first line defense in the secondary after combining for seven interceptions and 14 pass break ups last season. Safety Kishawn McClain will seek to follow up on a 2016 campaign in which he turned in 91 tackles, five TFLs, three interceptions, and forced two fumbles. The Mean Green secondary is experienced and really, really fast. That’s almost always a winning combination.

2: Western Kentucky: New Hilltoppers head coach Mike Sanford Jr. might have a lot to worry about in his first season as a head coach but his secondary can’t rank very highly on the list. WKU only needs to replace safety Branden Leston (a tough guy to replace, sure) but he’ll be able to lean on one of the strongest groups of cornerbacks in the conference. The back of the Hilltoppers’ defense is senior-laden and has a strong winning pedigree. It’s tough to imagine a big drop off here.

NCAA Football: Arizona State at Texas-San Antonio
Nate Gaines (11)
Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports

3. UTSA: Frank Wilson’s Roadrunners lost a duo of great safeties in Michael Egwuagu and Jordan Moore but UTSA still returns nine out of 11 defensive backs from what was already a pretty strong secondary. If need be, 2016 breakout star Austin Jupe could move back to safety after an impressing showing in his first season as a cornerback. If the Roadrunners’ JUCO additions in the secondary pan out, then UTSA will likely have the best secondary in the league. Even if they don’t, UTSA will still be pretty strong in the back four as all-conference safety Nate Gaines provides the last line of defense.

4. Old Dominion: With 10 of 12 leading defensive backs returning and arguably the best pass rush in the conference ahead of them, Bobby Wilder probably isn’t losing much sleep over his secondary. Senior cornerback Brandon Addison returns to lead the way after notching two interceptions and 10 pass break ups in 2016. ODU will need a playmaker to step up following the graduation of the Monarch’s most disruptive defensive back in Aaron Young, but the options are plenty.

Good Shape

5. UTEP: The Miners’ young secondary should see some nice improvement in 2017. Junior Kalon Beverly has impressed with his length and athleticism after starting 17 games in his first two seasons in El Paso. Another offseason under his wings should bring his play to another level. Young cornerbacks Nik Needham and Justin Rogers have played well thus far in their careers and should be nice pieces for this defense moving forward. Tying it all together is senior Devin Cockrell. One of the most experienced players in the conference, Cockrell will seek to make the step from dependable and consistency to game-breaking dynamism in 2017.

NCAA Football: Florida International at Florida Atlantic
Jalen Young (18)
Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

6. FAU: The talent is in place, FAU just needs the coaching to tap into the potential in the Owls’ secondary. Defensive coordinator Chris Kiffin might just be the guy to turn FAU’s secondary into the ball-hawking unit it’s made to be. Safety Jalen Young leads the way after totaling 100 tackles in his sophomore campaign. Young has also brought in five interceptions throughout his career at FAU. He’ll gain help from incoming three-star JUCO safety Jovon Burris Jr. and a bevy of talented freshmen recruits. It’s a clean chalkboard for Kiffin but an extremely talented one to work with.

7. Marshall: The Thundering Herd will need to replace Terry Richardson (15.5 tackles, two INTs, three PBUs) and safety Corey Neely (59.5 tackles, two INT, three PBUs) this season but the rest of the cast is back for another ride. Marshall’s pass defense wasn’t excellent but they did rank highly in “havoc” plays, indicating an aggressive style in the secondary. Safety C.J. Reavis has all the potential in the world and senior Kendall Gant returns as the team’s second leading tackler. His superior in total tackles? Senior cornerback Rodney Allen. A strong candidate for all-conference honors, Allen picked off two passes, broke up 12 more, and forced four fumbles. More of that, please.

8. UAB: While it’s anyone’s guess what the Blazers will look like once the lights come on, they’re at least in good shape on paper. Bill Clark has two Power Five transfers to work with at safety in Duke Culver (Louisville) and Will Dawkins (Indiana). While Dawkins hasn’t played a snap of football since 2015, he did start three games for the Hoosiers in his redshirt freshman season. JUCO cornerback transfer D.A. Williams once held offers from a slew of Power Five schools so there’s at least some raw talent there. Just like every position on UAB’s roster, there’s a lot of hope among the ones and two but some untimely injuries could spell doom as the Blazers haven’t fully completed filling out their roster.

9. FIU: The Panthers will be experienced — we know that much. Butch Davis will inherit one of the more experienced secondaries in the nation, but only cornerback Isaiah Brown could be considered an exceptional talent. Interceptions were hard to come by for FIU in 2016 as Brown led the pack with just three picks. FIU needs to find a way to make quarterbacks uncomfortable when scanning the field and it’s hard to tell if they have that athletic potential on campus right now. A pair of incoming three-star brothers Richard Dames and Rishard Dames (both Booker T. Washington products) could provide the fireworks FIU is currently missing in the secondary.

We’ll See

Florida International v Charlotte
Ben DeLuca (28)
Photo by Mike Comer/Getty Images

10. Charlotte: Losing Terrance Winchester to injury last season led to an extremely young and unstable secondary for Charlotte. Opponents had no fear challenging the 49ers through the air in order to avoid defensive tackle and all-around terror Larry Ogunjobi. 6’2” freshman free safety Ben DeLuca was the shining bright spot in 2016 as he quickly acclimated himself to the collegiate game, racking up 59.5 tackles, two interceptions, and four pass break ups. Anthony Covington will return as a senior, providing at least one dependable option at cornerback. We’ll just have to wait and see what kind of progress the youngsters make in the offseason.

11. Louisiana Tech: The Bulldogs gave up way too much space through the air in 2016 and must improve with their offense projected to take a step back following the graduation of Carlos Henderson, Trent Taylor, and Ryan Higgins. With Xavier Woods graduating out of the program, senior Secdrick Cooper must step into the spotlight after a strong 2016 campaign. Louisiana Tech lost two solid contributors at corner in Cyril Noland-Lewis and Price Sam but junior Ephraim Kitchen has the athleticism to replace them. Kitchen totaled 4.5 TFLs and four pass break ups through injury woes last season. There’s a lot of cause for concern here but a strong batch of incoming recruits at cornerback should help alleviate the pain.

12. Southern Miss: Perhaps overly aggressive on defense in 2016, Southern Miss returns all of their cornerbacks but practically none of their safeties after a mixed performance last season. Naturally, Jay Hopson made the safety position a key focus in his last recruiting class. We’ll see how those guys gel in the fall but at least they’ll have an experienced core to lean on at cornerback. If they’re able to stay disciplined it should take some pressure off of a group of safeties that will be learning on the job.

13. Middle Tennessee: With stud cornerback Jeremy Cutrer now on the Jacksonville Jaguars, the Blue Raiders are in desperate need of a game changer on the boundary. Returning corners Michael Minter and Charvarius Ward provide some potential as they combined for four interceptions and 14 pass break ups in 2016. With so little depth at cornerback it’s relieving that the Blue Raiders return three safeties with 50 or more tackles in 2016. None of these guys are going to light up the stat sheet but they do provide a bit of a safety blanket for the defense.

14. Rice - Look, despite the last-place ranking Rice can’t get much worse against the pass. The Owls had the worst passing downs defense in the country last year. They’ll return pretty much everyone back deep after being stricken with awful injury and illness issues in 2016. There’s probably not an all-conference level performer in this group but at least David Bailiff already has a pretty good idea of what his depth chart might look like. That being said, maybe a clean house would have been a better start than known commodities.